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Our work strives to enhance our sense of surroundings, identity and relationship to others and the physical spaces we inhabit, whether feral or human-made.

Selected Awards
  • 2004 — Aga Khan Award for Architecture
  • 2009 — Mies van der Rohe Award
  • 2013 — AIA/ALA Library Building Award
  • 2015 — Best Interior, Designers Saturday
  • 2016 — AIA New York Honor Award

The metallurgical workshop in the Capellada neighbourhood

Archaeological excavations in the Capellada area have uncovered the remains of a metallurgical workshop that probably operated during the second half of the 1st century AD.

In Roman times, these workshops were located in the immediate vicinity of the mines where the ore was obtained and were often itinerant workshops, which moved on once the ore was depleted.

In the case of Besalú, there is no indication of where the mines were located; thus, its role as an iron-producing centre must have been linked to its importance within the territory and to its strategic location, on the Via Annia and following a natural passage that connected the Empordà region with the Garrotxa region and the eastern Pyrenees.

The introduction of water power to blow air into the kilns in medieval times meant that the workshops became fixed, and the Catalan forge appeared in mountain areas.

From metallurgical workshops to the Catalan forge

From Roman times and throughout the Middle Ages, iron had been obtained in small operations located at the foot of the mine or near forests, with easy access to the ore or coal, both essential materials in the process of obtaining iron, without the added costs and efforts of transport. This is the case of the Roman metallurgical workshop in the neighbourhood of Capellades de Besalú.

The growth of the demand for iron gradually led to the abandonment of these small workshops and the search for driving force in the water of the rivers to move the hammer beams and blow air into the kilns, in the same way that it took advantage of the force of the water to operate flour mills, paper mills or draperies; in fact, the beams of the draperies and the beams of the forges were operated in the same way.

This technic marks the birth of the Catalan forge, the method of obtaining iron by reducing the ore, without melting it, through the action of charcoal. But farga (forge) also refers to the place where this process is applied.

The Catalan forge had its heyday between the 17th and 19th centuries, and these establishments spread mainly through the area of the Eastern Pyrenees, while in other areas, such as the Basque Country or the Alps, iron was obtained following similar processes, but with variations in the shape of the ovens or the machines they used to blow air into them.

The disappearance of the Catalan forge as a competitive method for obtaining iron began at the end of the 19th century in northern Europe, where the abundance of coal and minerals led to the invention of a new method that allowed iron to be smelted. and to obtain a continuous casting (while the ore and fuel furnace was being fed) and to convert this molten iron into steel. This was the beginning of the so-called blast furnaces, which would soon replace Catalan forges and other processes used throughout Europe.

 

Operation of the forges

The main elements of a forge were the hammer, the furnace and the air injection system.

The operation began by loading the kiln with alternating layers of iron ore and charcoal. It was then ignited, and air was blown through the nozzle to a stable temperature of about 1,000 degrees Celsius. The air was injected through one or two bellows, moved by hydraulic wheels or by animals, and from the seventeenth century through the hydraulic tube, a device consisting of a box with two or three vertical wooden tubes to the lower part which received the water from the channel. Air entered the box through a few holes and was dragged by the water to the wind box, where the water separated from the air by hitting the sides and drained down a drain, at the same time the air was conducted to the nozzle connected to the furnace.

After three or four hours of adding coal and ore, and removing the liquid slag, an irregular ball was obtained from a porous mass of iron mixed with slag called bloom.

Next, the hammer removed the slag and compacted and shaped the bloom. The forges used to have two hammers in operation, with one the bloom was compacted and with the other iron and mild steel (low carbon) were formed. The hammers were driven by the hydraulic wheel, a mechanism that allowed the force generated by a watercourse or waterfall to be converted into mechanical energy.

The whole process used to take between six and eight hours, between 300 and 400 kg of ore and a further 300 or 400 kg of coal were consumed. This produced between 75 and 125 kg of iron, in addition to a good amount of slag, which was used for other procedures, such as construction.

The harsh climate of the forges’ location, with snow and ice in the rivers, meant that the forges were only in operation for one season of the year. During this period, they worked tirelessly to keep the furnace always at the right temperature, one of the requirements for obtaining a good quality bloom.

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